PATRICK RUELL – Red Christmas. John Long, UK, hardcover, 1972. Hawthorn, US, hardcover, 1972. Manor Books, US, paperback, 1974. Mysterious Press, US, paperback; 1st printing, May 1987.

   Author Reginald Hill, who died in 2012, is best known, of course, for his two dozen books about British police detectives Andrew Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. Not nearly as well known is that he also wrote five books about a black private detective named Joe Sixsmith, plus a number of standalones under both his name and as Patrick Ruell.

   This was my first sample of any the latter, and while it was a little late for the holiday season, it stands up as the best crime or detective novel I’ve read so far this year. It starts on the day before Christmas, as travelers from all directions converge on an isolated country house called Dingley Dell, straight out of Charles Dickens and The Pickwick Papers, and decked up as an exact facsimile for the holiday.

   Some of the guests are exactly that. Others have secret reasons for being there. Question: In which group does the delectable Arabella Allen fall? Their host is a jovial stout gentleman named Wardle, but Arabella seems to find a kindred spirit in his assistant, a scholar named Boswell, one of whose stated tasks is to maintain as close a verisimilitude to the past as possible.

   Spirits are high — they are snowed in, of course — and everyone seems to be having a great time. Behind the scenes, though, their hosts are doing their best to keep the sight of a growing number of deaths a secret from them. This is the edge that keeps the reader reading as well, long into the night. Are Arabella and Boswell on the same side? Eventually, yes, but how long will the truce last?

   On the cover of the Mysterious Press paperback you may be able to make out the shape of a helicopter swooping down over the manor — a very appropriate image. As the body count begins to grow, so do the stakes, and one or two big twists are just what the reader needs to sit back and say, Ah! for a job well done.